Teachers and Teaching: State Level Solutions

Teachers and Teaching: State Level Solutions

This is part 3 of a short series on issues affecting teachers and teaching.  Click the links to read Part 1 and Part 2.

Given that shortages are more pronounced in specific settings, recruiting and retaining teachers is less about teachers generally and more about finding and keeping the right teachers, in the right subjects, for the right schools.

                                                         — Education Commission of the States, June 2022

image via University of Iowa

Recruiting and retaining teachers is challenging in the current climate.  We examined the decline of people choosing to pursue education degrees in the previous post and the major, driving factor in that trend:  money.  There’s just not enough financial incentive to become a teacher when the compensation is not sufficient to pay off loans necessary for getting a degree.  For this reason, undergraduates are choosing the private sector, where the opportunities for salary growth are much better both in the short and long term.  However, there are levers that can be applied at the state level to recruit from those already in schools (paraprofessionals, current students) and to incentivize the decision to teach in practical ways.  The Education Commission for the States (ECS) has compiled extensive data on exactly who is doing what to try to address these issues. What’s interesting about the data is the differences in the degree of transparency between states; some are very forthcoming with data, others not so much.  Some of this data was part of each state’s ESSA plans, but several states have not published any data since their original ESSA filing.  Data always makes me start asking questions, so here’s what this data made me wonder about:

How forthcoming are states about the current state of teaching? 

  • Forty states and the District of Columbia have published teacher shortage data in the past five years.
  • Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia have released educator equity gap data since they originally submitted their ESSA plans.

Without state-specific data on teacher shortages, we may not have the most precise picture of what shortages look like.  We know (thanks to a plethora of news stories last summer) that it hasn’t been great, and we know from the National Center for Education Statistics that 86% of districts reported “challenges” hiring teachers for the 2023-24 school year.

The next bit is very interesting:  the educator equity gap pinpoints where students from low-income backgrounds and/or students of color are served by ineffective, inexperienced or out-of-field teachers.   You can read more about why this is important here, but the short answer is that rural and urban districts are hardest hit with teacher shortages and  lack of fully certified staff and that directly affects how much and how well kids learn.  It’s hard to say whether this information is being collected by those states that aren’t publishing data; they may have it and just choose not to make it public.  But then, of course, I wonder, why not?  Would it be embarrassing? Would it mean they might be forced to do something about it?

How informed are states with regard to teacher working conditions?

ECS found that 27 states and the District of Columbia have conducted a statewide teacher working conditions survey in the past five years. Some states conduct a survey annually.  But this means that nearly half of all states have not conducted such surveys and so may not really understand what they are up against when constructing public policy.**

What are they doing about it at the state level?

Recruitment:   ECS found that 32 states offer pathways for high school students*** and 25 states and the District of Columbia offer pathways for paraprofessionals.  Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have at least one scholarship program for teachers who commit to teach in underserved schools or shortage subject areas;  25  states have a loan forgiveness program for teachers who commit to teach in underserved schools or shortage subject areas.  Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have either created or supported teacher residencies (where prospective teachers learn to teach by working with an accredited teacher in a classroom setting) in state policy.  All of these programs and policies help get at that core reason for education degree decline: the cost of the degree itself measured against one’s earnings potential as an educator.  In these programs, the state becomes an investor in the future teacher, materially funding their education with the expectation of a defined period of teaching in underserved areas.

image via futurity.org

Good, right?  But here’s something less good: only 14 states have established incentives for teachers of color**** in state policy and only 13 states either prioritize teachers of color in existing scholarship or loan forgiveness programs or provide support to teacher preparation programs in specifically recruiting teachers of color.  This is a real area of need in many communities for a host of reasons,  such as the massive imbalance between the total population of children of color in U.S. schools versus the proportion of teachers of color, and the problems inherent with children of color only being served by white teachers.  Representation — the opportunity to see your skin color, your culture, your experiences embodied in your classroom teacher — is powerful and powerfully motivating for children. It’s so de rigueur for white children that it’s easy for white educators and policy makers to downplay or entirely miss how important this is.

Retention:  In this equally important area,  31 states require induction and mentoring support for new teachers in statute or regulation and 35 states set minimum qualifications for teachers serving as mentors.  Mentoring, specifically in order to support new teachers, helps to address a lot of issues that might otherwise drive young educators out of the profession.  Setting minimum qualifications for mentor teachers is also key: mentoring can’t be one of those assignments teachers get that brings extra cash without first demonstrating their abilities (and commitment) to teach effectively themselves and to mentor young teachers over an extended timeframe.  Having specific, delineated programs for mentoring would be even better.

Mentoring requirements and qualifications are laudable, but they don’t go far enough.  Some teachers are being asked to function in hostile environments where they feel neither valued nor trusted as professionals to to their jobs.  A Vanderbilt University study from 2016 found that alternatively certified teachers (which is what some of these new educators coming through state incentive programs will be) are more likely to leave education because they don’t feel supported in their professional work.   Only half of all states specify a minimum teacher salary in policy or statute, but poor starting pay and substandard salaries are well documented as major factors in people choosing away from education, so merely having something in policy about minimum salaries doesn’t solve the problem.  Only 32 states have policies or statutes that require additional pay for advanced degrees or national board certification.

The real conundrum here is the patchwork nature of how these issues are being addressed.  It’s a national problem, but less than a national response.  Because of this, many children, even whole schools, are likely to fall through the cracks.  On balance, I think more is needed to encourage people to become teachers,  target recruitment for underserved areas, and ensure that once teachers are in the profession, they stay in the profession.  The quote we began with speaks to the heart of the matter — that the teachers we recruit need to be competent, fully certified, in content areas where the need is greatest, and sent to schools where good teachers are critically necessary to student success.


* Who’s not publishing educator equity gap data:  Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Nebraska, Ohio, Utah and Vermont.

**Or, if you are feeling cynical,  you might wonder if they don’t want to know because then they’d have to ensure that policy is responding to documented conditions. Or they might fear that this information would provide hardest hit areas — like rural districts — with leverage in policy disputes.  

***Who doesn’t have policy or some other means of providing such pathways for HS kids?  Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont.  The states listed here have no policy and no documented program.  Several states (like Iowa, California, and Tennessee) don’t have policies but have programs or grants that the state supports. 

****Alabama, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin all have incentive programs for teachers of color in state policy. Several other states have programs not codified in policy or are permitted (though not required) by statute to recruit teachers of color.


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